Washington Watch: Mideast peace Catch-22

The Palestinians didn’t show up because they’re still mad at US President Donald Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cutting off American aid.

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February 20, 2019 22:47
4 minute read.
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Palestinians clash with Israeli security outside the Old City of Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

 
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The Trump administration sponsored a conference in Warsaw last week to talk about Middle East peace. It was doomed from the start.
Jared Kushner, the president’s special adviser, was supposed to brief participants on the administration’s peace plan he is drafting, but they were disappointed that he shared little or nothing of substance about the contents.

The Palestinians didn’t show up because they’re still mad at US President Donald Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cutting off American aid, both of which they see as undermining the two-state solution.

Despite the conference’s billing, the Trump administration never really wanted a substantive discussion of peace, participants complained to reporters. Neither did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their minds were on Iran.

They tried and failed to persuade the Europeans to abandon the Iran nuclear deal – which Israeli defense and intelligence analysts still insist is working – and embrace renewed American sanctions on Tehran.

“It was a public relations debacle for the US and a clear victory for Iran,” reported Ron Ben Yishai of Israel’s Ynet News.

US Vice President Mike Pence made a similar plea Saturday at the Munich Security Conference. He began by saying: “I bring greetings” from President Trump and paused for applause – but there was none. He then delivered his plea – actually, demand – for support of Washington’s Iran policy. “The silence was deafening,” tweeted Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and others.

By contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former vice president Joe Biden spoke in favor of a robust American-European alliance and support for the Iran deal – and both got standing ovations.

It was clear that “Donald Trump and his team have alienated US allies in ways that hardly seemed possible before the Republican took office,” MSNBC reported.

THE LOW-LEVEL turnout at the Warsaw conference reflected America’s shrinking stature on the world scene.

Netanyahu urged Arabs not to reject the Trump peace plan without seeing it, although that is exactly what he has been doing in his reelection campaign. He has assured voters he would never agree to a Palestinian state, and he promised settlers that none would be removed from the West Bank – and he will expand the settlements’ footprint on land the Palestinians plan to build their state on.
 The prime minister expects the Palestinians to reject the plan, saving him the problem of saying no to Trump, who has a reputation for being very vindictive when he doesn’t get what he wants.

He’s probably right.

There is “very little confidence [in the Arab world] that the Palestinians will ever respond to anything” in any American peace proposal, and regional leaders don’t want to be held hostage by the Palestinians, former top US Mideast envoy Dennis Ross reported after a trip to the region.

He found a “fatigue with the Palestinians” in his conversations with Arab leaders. They are growing frustrated with them and many feel they are being held back from pursuing a strategic relationship with Israel.

There is a convergence of strategic interests with Israel among Saudis and some of their neighbors, but they’re reluctant to transform relations with Israel to a public level until something tangible is achieved on the Palestinian issue, Ross told a forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The more the US withdraws from the region, the more important relations with Israel will become for the Gulf Arabs, he added. Israel was once seen as a portal for going to Washington, but now is seen as a strategic partner in light of the US withdrawal.

That relationship will continue to grow just below the surface because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and Iran is a shared threat and more urgent concern. Full normalization must await peace with the Palestinians, Arab leaders are saying.

NETANYAHU’S STRATEGY appears to be that once the Palestinians reject Trump’s “deal of the century,” he can expect Arab leaders to normalize relations with Israel without them. Under his stewardship, Israel has improved economic, diplomatic and security relations with several Arab states, but the message at the Warsaw meeting and elsewhere has been that there are limits to what can be achieved without first making peace with the Palestinians.

Egypt, Israel’s closest Arab partner, was very emphatic. President Abdel al-Fatah al-Sisi said that: “The failure to reach a fair and final settlement of the Palestinian issue represents the main source of instability in the Middle East.”
Omani Foreign Minister Yosef ben Alawi said: “A sovereign Palestinian state is a condition for normalization with Israel.” The Saudis have said the same.

The Arab states can’t abandon the Palestinians for domestic political as well as strategic reasons. They have made the Palestinian cause their own for decades and there is great public support on the Arab street that cannot be ignored. 

What’s more, they don’t want the Iranians exploiting Palestinian discontent. They can’t afford to have it said they have abandoned the Palestinian cause in order to make a separate peace with the Zionists.

It’s a Catch-22. Israel and the Arab states are ready to make peace, but that can’t happen until the Palestinians get their own state – and neither side in that dispute is ready or willing to make the historic decisions that are required.

So there will continue to be meaningless conferences like the one in Warsaw; the US will continue to disengage from the region; Israel and the Arab states will pursue their relationships in the shadows; and the Israelis and Palestinian, plagued by poor leadership, will continue their low-level violence, interrupted by an occasional war – and that will become the new status quo.

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